‘The National League have created this chaos, this carnage, now they've thrown the clubs under a bus to save their own skin’ – club manager
Liam Watson, boss of National League North club Southport, believes league officials are ‘bullying’ clubs into playing on after the Government moved the financial goalposts before the 2020/21 season had even reached its halfway stage.
After being awarded grants for the first three months of the season, clubs were told that aid for January, February and March would be in the form of loans via the Government’s Sport Winter Survival Package.
Clubs started the season believing that if fans were not back in grounds by January, the grants would be continued until they were.
Even if some clubs want loans, they still have to apply for them - around a four-to-six week process. That means all 66 league clubs had to pay last month’s wage bill having not received any financial help from Boris Johnson’s administration.
As a result, Southport are one of a number of North clubs that are refusing to play league games following the lifting of a two-week suspension at sixth tier level at the weekend, instead putting their contracted players on furlough.
Three clubs in Hawks’ South division - Chippenham, Slough and Dulwich Hamlet - have also written to the league to say they won’t play until the result of a vote is known.
The clubs were sent voting forms on Monday, February 1, asking them to decide whether they wanted to play on or stop and declare the season null and void.
Under company law, clubs have 28 days to respond - so, technically, some clubs could spend all this month kicking their heels until a decision is known.
If that is the case, Hawks’ scheduled game at Chippenham next Tuesday will be postponed. But the club’s other four league games this month - against Hemel on Tuesday, Ebbsfleet on Saturday, Chelmsford on February 20 and Welling a week later - will be played as those clubs all want to carry on.
While the majority of South clubs could vote to continue, it appears most clubs in the North want to stop.
Watson certainly feels his club have played their final game of the season - and lays the blame firmly at the door of the National League’s board of directors, led by chairman Brian Barwick.
One of those board members, Dover Athletic’s Jim Parmenter, quit his role at the weekend, issuing his own hard-hitting statement in the process.
Speaking after his club’s FA Trophy exit at the weekend, Watson said: ‘Not one person on the Conference board has come out and said ‘we’re really sorry’, we have absolutely led you up the garden path.
‘We’ve promised you something, probably misguided, well definitely misguided, certainly the CEO (Michael Tattersall) must have felt he’s misguided us because he jumped and fell on the sword.’
That was a reference to Tattersall leaving his role at the end of last year, to be replaced by Mark Ives as interim general manager.
Even before the funding crisis had exploded, some clubs had publicly complained about how the league had divided up the £10m National Lottery package that funded the first three months of the season.
Seven clubs received £95,000 for three months - a total of £285,000. They were Notts County, Stockport, Wrexham, Chesterfield, Hartlepool, Yeovil Town and Torquay United - the sides with the highest average home attendances in the National League last season.
The remaining 16 clubs in the top flight banked £84,000 a month - a total of £252,000.
York City, Hereford, Chester, Dulwich and Maidstone received £36,000 per month as the five North and South teams with the highest average attendances during 2019-20.
All the others received £30,000. So Hawks, whose average crowd was more than double those of Oxford City, Hungerford, Chippenham, Hemel, Tonbridge and St Albans, ended up receiving exactly the same financial aid as them.
Hawks, who averaged 1,386 last season, banked £162,000 less over a three-month period than Boreham Wood, whose average National League crowd last term was 724.
It is that sort of financial disparity which so annoyed some clubs.
‘There was the argument about the funds, has it been fair, has it been right?’ Watson remarked.
‘These grants were to compensate for loss of fans’ revenue streams, so I’ll turn round and say some teams in the Conference Premier get crowds of 600 and they get £84,000 (a month).
‘You get a club like York City, a big club in our league, getting 2,000 or whatever, and they get £36,000.
‘How does that work out? It doesn’t work out, so there’s another mistake - they misguided us into starting the season when they told us we would have grants, they’ve been proven wrong, they’ve then got grants for the first three months and chucked them away.
‘You could actually have given us all less and done it over a five-month period and made us manage the funds correctly.
‘There’s teams in the Conference North and South who’ve been getting £30,000 and have felt like they’ve hit the jackpot.
‘I understand the bigger clubs have bigger outgoings but not once have I heard anyone on the board of the Conference come out and say ‘I’m sorry’.
‘Now they’re forcing clubs to vote to get them out of a position - no-one else, just them. They’ve created this chaos, this carnage.
‘Some clubs are rightly, 100 per cent rightly, saying as a club you cannot operate insolvent. If you are operating insolvent, you are breaking the law in effect, you could be struck off as a director.
‘We always have to do our PAYE, we always have to do our VAT, as a company/league they actually manage our finances, but now that’s all out of the window - take loans, do what you want, bail us out, because we’ve caused carnage and we’ve got to get out of jail here, we’ve got to save Vanarama deals, BT deals.
‘Now some clubs are saying ‘we’re not playing’. Then you get letters saying you’ll face sanctions.
‘The tactics have changed, now it’s bullying.
‘Are they going to fine clubs that potentially could go out of business because their grants, which they promised, haven’t come forward?
‘You’re now asking clubs to go to Sport England for a loan. I’m not being funny but it would take a month to fill the form in.
‘If I was a director on that board, me personally, I would get up and resign because what they’ve done to all these clubs is not far short of an absolute disgrace.’
A day after Watson’s comments, a director DID resign.
In a letter to chairman Barwick and the remaining board members, Parmenter said: ‘I can no longer support the direction of travel that the board is taking and I’m afraid I can no longer be seen to be a party to actions which I absolutely disagree with.
‘I accept that the board is a collective and whilst as a member, it is a prerequisite that, in public, the board and its Chairman are supported. I have therefore chosen to resign, in order to say what I really believe publicly.
‘The lack of grant funding should have been properly addressed in late December or at least very early January. As it stands it is likely to be two months with no funds for clubs before any sort of resolution is forthcoming.
‘I am in particular disagreement that the executive appears to be encouraging clubs to take large loans to complete the season, as I have said twice at board meetings I believe that the competition rules are being broken by allowing the proposed loans, let alone encouraging them.
‘The league has for ten years insisted that clubs manage their financial affairs prudently and has had great success and received much praise for the results, now that is all to be thrown to the dogs and for what?
‘I understand why the bigger, richer clubs with chances of promotion are pushing hard to continue, but in a sense they are asking smaller clubs with no crowds or income who are playing for no reason to take large loans and probably overstretch themselves with dire consequences, to subsidise the larger clubs’ ambitions.
‘I do not agree with that position.
‘The board has very little credibility as an organisation within our clubs and I believe the decision to send letters to clubs who find it difficult to play, threatening sanctions was ill-conceived and will do nothing to unite the competition in what continues to be a very divisive time.
‘Even if the vote is to continue I do not believe that the league will be able to continue in any credible form or with integrity for another five months.’
Watson continued: ‘I feel the board of directors have thrown all these clubs under a bus to save their own skin. To start throwing fines and sanctions at clubs who they have already put in financial chaos sums it up.
‘We won’t be going to Brackley (on Tuesday). We don’t want to put the players at risk.
‘As far as I’m concerned this (FA Trophy loss to Torquay) is our last game of the season, I can’t see a resolution. They’ve had 14 days to come up with a resolution and what have they come up with - we’re going to start again, if you don’t we’ll sanction you.
‘That’s bullying in this day and age.’